Remarks by Minister K Shanmugam
1. I thank the Honourable Members for their comments.
2. The task for MFA is to chart a course in an uncertain world, a course that best protects our country, our economy and advances our people’s interests.
3. How do we do it? First, build and maintain strong international network of friends; and actively participate in international organisations which are relevant to us; and support key regional organisations and platforms like ASEAN, EAS, and so on, and maintain strong relationships with our neighbours to the extent possible. I say that because it depends on principles of mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty, and interests.
4. These principles have to be applied in the real world – a world of dynamic flux where geopolitical relationships change; often they change very quickly.
5. As we speak, yet another new crisis has been added to the international problems already facing all of us. What is happening in the Ukraine impacts on all of us at several levels – there is a potential impact on the World Economy and therefore our economy as well. Other countries will see what patterns of behaviour are possible. This is a situation of a standoff now between a big country and a small country. It offers several lessons for Singapore in real politics and international relations.
6. Russian troops are in control of parts of Ukraine. The United Nations Security Council has been debating the issue for days. Russia and the P3 have been making points against each other.
7. The P3 point out that moving troops into another country is in gross violation of international law, and that Russia has breached a 1994 MOU that it had signed. I will refer to this MOU later.
8. Russia responds by saying that the lawfully elected President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown by a coup, and Yanukovych has invited them into Ukraine to help, and Russia wants to protect Russians in Ukraine, and Russia refers to American actions in Grenada in 1983.
9. Will the Security Council take meaningful action beyond being a debating platform? Unlikely given the vetoes that the P5 have, and Russia is one of the P5.
10. So what will happen hereafter? One has to assess Russian interests in Crimea. Since the 18th Century when Russia annexed Crimea, Russia has always considered its interests in Crimea to be vital. Russian actions against the Ottoman Empire, in pursuance of these interests, led to the Crimean War over 150 years ago. Britain and France decided to confront Russia then, through military action. Russia lost that war. If one had stepped back and considered the matter, as Ukraine was going through its protests in the last several weeks, it would have been fairly obvious that there was a significant risk of Russia moving to protect what it will consider to be its vital interest. We do not know what was or was not considered by the different parties. And we do not know what the P3 and EU plan to do next. What is obvious now is that it is, unfortunately, Ukraine and its people who have to face the consequences of all that has happened.
11. Singapore’s stand: We strongly object to any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext or excuse. Russian troops should not be in Ukraine in breach of international law. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected. International law must be respected. There can be no qualifications to this.
12. Madam Speaker, I have dwelt on Ukraine at some length for two key reasons:
First, Singapore has always emphasised, that big or small, all countries must observe international law. We have consistently opposed invasions, whether East Timor or Cambodia. We have taken a clear stand, even when our views were contrary to those of far bigger powers, who were quite unhappy with us. Indonesia, Soviet Union were amongst those who were unhappy then. We take the same stand now. There should not be any invasion of Ukraine.
Second, the events in Ukraine hold a number of lessons for us. Russia had signed an agreement in 1994 with the United States and the United Kingdom agreeing not to threaten or use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. They also pledged never to use economic coercion to subjugate Ukraine to their own interest. Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence was thus confirmed by a treaty.
Lesson No. 1: So the first lesson really is, when it comes to the crunch, treaties are only meaningful if you have the ability to enforce them. If Ukraine cannot defend the treaty, and has no partners which will come to its aid - and I mean with deeds, not just words, then the treaty by itself will not help Ukraine.
Lesson No. 2: In international relations, size matters. The disparity between big and small countries is a fact of life. A small country which cannot protect itself puts its sovereignty and its people at risk. Russia is vastly bigger than Ukraine, and its armed forces are much more powerful than the Ukraine armed forces. Russia is a nuclear power, and Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons as part of the 1994 treaty.
Lesson No. 3: something we have repeated many times: the Security Council cannot always act decisively to protect small countries.
Lesson 4: When squeezed between two big powers or blocs, a smaller country like Ukraine can become a pawn. The country caught in between can be sacrificed if the two contending powers or blocs decide to reach a wider accommodation with each other, trading off their various interests. This has happened frequently in history – for example, to Poland. Smaller countries must always be aware of this.
13. Madam Speaker, I read what Honourable Mr Laurence Lien said about need for “a more positive narrative that is grounded in optimism”. I wish it were possible to agree with him. But at least from the foreign policy perspective (which has a direct impact on domestic well-being of Singaporeans), that would require one to ignore the facts and stop being realistic and honest with the people of Singapore.
14. Everything may look fine on the surface, but does that mean that our size does not matter? The treaties which guarantee our sovereignty and survival will by themselves be enough? That we can ignore the reality that we exist on 720 square kilometres? And that we are quite at the mercy of international economic winds, competition, bilateral disputes, regional tensions and shifts in the strategic balance? It is a harsh world, with rules which are often ignored by many countries, including the major powers. Success is not pre-ordained for any country, let alone a small city state. We ignore that at our peril.
15. One has to accept facts, reality and then calmly and rationally deal with them, and explain publicly the situation and the response.
16. Last week, I stopped over in Istanbul, on my way back to Singapore, from Iran. I met the Turkish Interior Minister. He hosted me to lunch, on the Bosphorus. As I looked out into the Bosphorus, the crisis in Ukraine, (which is just really across the waters from the Bosphorus and the Black Sea), kept going through my mind. Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe – it has a population of 45 million. It has an armed force of 90,000 active personnel with another 1 million reserve personnel. It had an elected President and Parliament. It was a functioning state, not a failed state. It was negotiating an economic agreement with the EU. It has embassies all over the world, including Singapore. Yet it finds itself in deep crisis – its political system is in limbo, foreign troops on its soil, facing the serious risk of dismemberment, economy seriously affected, reserves running low.
17. I could not help but then think of our own situation – if we do not constantly run hard to make sure that everything works, that we out compete the world, that we can defend ourselves, how long will it take for our situation to unravel ?
18. Mr Lien also said that we should trust our people. That I have no quarrel with – I entirely agree with him. But we also have a duty to be honest with our people, and tell it like it is; and not sugar-coat the truth. It is best to be unvarnished about the truth.
Snapshot of the region
19. If I can now offer Members a brief snapshot of the region. Myanmar has faced ethnic as well as religious conflict recently. It has deep seated problems, and it has to deal with these issues while undergoing a difficult political and economic transition as well as handling the important task of being ASEAN Chair. Thailand. One can see from the daily media updates what is happening, and no clarity as to when or how it might end. And it is the second largest economy in ASEAN. Cambodia, post elections, has faced some issues. Indonesia and Malaysia. Members will be following developments in Indonesia and Malaysia closely, so I do not need to say much. We have had some issues with Indonesia recently. Indonesia will have parliamentary and presidential elections this year. In the past, Singapore has been the subject of adverse comments by some electoral contestants. We cannot rule out that happening again.
20. Ms Irene Ng and Mr Alex Yam also asked about potential pitfalls in our relations with Malaysia, including reports about the issue of water pricing.
21. I too have read recent reports in the Malaysian media that Johor wishes to review the price of raw water sold to Singapore. Singapore’s position on this issue has been clear, consistent and unambiguous. We have articulated our position in this House many times. On 25th of January 2003, Professor Jayakumar gave a comprehensive account of our position. We have also formally conveyed our position to the Malaysian government on several occasions. First, there is an existing 1962 Water Agreement. That Agreement is in turn guaranteed by the Separation Agreement, and both Agreements are international treaties which are vital to us, our sovereignty and our security. The terms of that Agreement cannot be changed unilaterally. Second, under the terms of the 1962 Water Agreement, Malaysia has lost the right to review the price of water.
22. I will elaborate on this when I answer a question that Ms Ellen Lee has filed, specifically on the recent Malaysian media reports on the price of water.
23. What we have set out is the legal position under international law. How good is it? It is good as long as both countries observe international law.
24. Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar asked about Singapore’s relations with Indonesia, and Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Ms Irene Ng asked about the naming of the Indonesian navy ship KRI Usman Harun.
25. I have explained our position on the KRI Usman Harun in this House in February quite extensively. There will be issues which arise. Overall, our relationship with Indonesia is positive.
26. For example, we have made substantial progress in the negotiations on our maritime boundary in the eastern Straits of Singapore.
27. Dr Mokhtar and Dr Lim also asked for an update on our cooperation with Indonesia on transboundary haze pollution and ASEAN efforts to tackle this issue.
28. Progress on this front has not been rapid. I will highlight three points: First, ASEAN countries agreed to the ASEAN Sub-Regional Haze Monitoring System, or HMS, which will allow us to better pinpoint those responsible for the haze. But we have not yet been able to implement the HMS, even though the system is ready, because the other parties have yet to agree to do so. The credibility of ASEAN is, of course, at stake. Second, there was a media report on 4 March that mentioned that the majority of an Indonesian Parliamentary Commission was, in principle, supportive of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. That is welcome news as the other ASEAN countries have ratified the Agreement. Thus, once Indonesia agrees, the treaty can come into force. Third, we have had reasonably successful cooperation on the ground with Jambi Province. Through a Letter of Intent, or LOI, between Singapore and Indonesia, we provided assistance in technical capacity building and workshops, setting up of air and weather monitoring stations, amongst others. This MOU lapsed in 2009. We have suggested to Indonesia that we renew the LOI. Our respective officials have met several times. Jambi Province is keen for the LOI to be signed and for cooperation to continue. This could help on the ground by providing technical assistance and capacity building capabilities to equip local farmers with alternative land-clearing methods, sustainable farming and zero-burning practices. We are waiting for final approval from the relevant authorities in Jakarta, before the cooperation can be resumed.
Other ASEAN Neighbours
29. Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Mr Ong Teng Koon asked about Singapore’s relations with other Southeast Asian countries, and the impact of the domestic situation in Thailand.
30. We continue to broaden and deepen our relationships with other Southeast Asian countries besides Malaysia and Indonesia. With Vietnam, we upgraded our relationship to a Strategic Partnership last year, and launched the 5th Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Park. We recently signed an Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreement with Laos during the Laotian PM’s official visit to Singapore. The Agreement will further expand bilateral economic links.
31. We also continue to maintain strong relationships with Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand, anchored by cooperation across multiple sectors.
32. Such exchanges help sustain the momentum of bilateral relations, even as some of our neighbours undergo important political transitions.
33. On Thailand, I have said earlier what I can say. Within Thai society, there are also different factions with different interests. We can only hope for an amicable and peaceful solution to the crisis.
34. Ms Ellen Lee, Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Mr Alex Yam asked about progress towards achieving ASEAN’s 2015 Community goal and ASEAN’s plans after 2015. Ms Ellen Lee also asked about the regional architecture.
35. Key focus of the 2015 ASEAN Community is the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).
36. We are about 80% on track to achieving an AEC, which will integrate and transform ASEAN into a single regional market with freer flows of goods, services, investment, skilled labour, and capital.
37. Integration is an ongoing task. It will not end on 31 December 2015. Following the adoption of the Bandar Seri Begawan Declaration on the ASEAN Community’s Post-2015 Vision in October 2013, Singapore is actively working with our neighbours to develop ASEAN’s Post-2015 Vision for the ASEAN Community.
38. ASEAN-led regional platforms including the ASEAN Plus Three, East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum have developed constructive patterns of engagement amongst members amidst an unpredictable environment. As the geopolitical complexity of the region increases, it is vital that ASEAN remains united and effective in managing shifts in partnership with our stakeholders.
39. While good bilateral relations with our neighbours and a strong and cohesive ASEAN contribute to regional stability, our environment is also shaped by the relations among major powers in the region.
40. Ms Ellen Lee asked for an assessment of the state of Sino-US relations, and whether Sino-US tensions will affect ASEAN.
41. US-China relations are the key factor that will shape the regional environment. How both powers manage this relationship will be vital for regional stability. Although the US and China are in direct competition with each other in several areas, they also have many shared interests and strong interdependence. The US and China have committed to maintaining strong ties with each other, and they share a common interest in a stable Asia Pacific region. This is in the region’s interest. ASEAN will continue to serve as a neutral platform for major powers to engage one another and the region. ASEAN’s broader goal is to sustain an open and inclusive regional architecture conducive for peace, stability and growth.
Tensions in Northeast Asia
42. Mr David Ong asked about the risks of rising tensions in Northeast Asia.
43. A peaceful and stable Northeast Asia is also critical for the development and prosperity of the wider region. However, here tensions have been rising over the past year, due to a series of actions and reactions taken by different parties. This trend is worrying, as it could jeopardise stability, confidence and growth prospects in the region.
44. Mr Ong Teng Koon asked about Singapore’s position on the South China Sea disputes, and how they can be addressed.
45. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) are another potentially serious flashpoint. Let me restate briefly Singapore’s position: We take no sides on the merits of the various claims in the South China Sea. But we are a small trading nation, where our external trade is three and a half times our GDP. We have a critical interest in ensuring that freedom of navigation and overflight as well as peace and stability in the South China Sea – and all high seas – are maintained. This is important to all users of the sea as the South China Sea is a vital sea line of communications through which a third of the world’s trade passes.
46. We hope that claimant states will abide by international law, including the UNCLOS. As a small state, we have a strong vested interest in preserving a predictable and rules-based order in the global sealanes – which include the South China Sea. We have an interest in ensuring that disputes are settled peacefully in accordance with international law. Singapore will continue to strongly support the effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS and the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China.
Search for Space
47. Mr David Ong asked how else we are advancing our interests in freedom of navigation, including the Arctic Council.
48. At the international level, Singapore continues to actively expand our strategic space and protect our national interests through participation in international fora such as the United Nations and its agencies.
49. Singapore also participates in various initiatives to ensure that our interests in freedom of navigation are maintained. For example, in May 2013, Singapore successfully gained observer status in the Arctic Council. Our contribution as an observer will allow us to monitor first-hand important issues that will affect our interests, such as the environmental effects due to the development in the Arctic, impact of new shipping routes on our position as a transhipment hub and freedom of navigation.
50. Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Ms Irene Ng asked about how the geopolitical environment has affected our foreign policy.
51. Although the evolving geopolitical landscape has complicated our external environment, the key tenets of our diplomacy have served and will continue to serve us well. I have set them out earlier. Even though we are a small nation, we must be able speak up on global issues which affect our national interests, for example, allowing a country and its people to determine its own future free of external force or influence.
52. Singapore’s continued prosperity is contingent on its security. Foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy, requires the backing of all Singaporeans, as well as a strong and dedicated Foreign Service that is skilful and nimble enough to address new challenges and seize emerging opportunities. That is really vital for the safeguarding of and advancing Singapore’s interests.
53. Mr Giam, I think, really made this point: that we ought to be spending more in terms of foreign aid and development. I think if you take 0.75 percent of our GDP, we are looking at something in excess of S$2 billion dollars. I would suggest with respect that that is probably the wrong approach to take. That you don’t start out by saying “I want to spend so much money”. You start out by saying, “where do I want to be in foreign policy terms? What is it I want to achieve?” And having listened to my speech, Mr Giam would appreciate that we do what is necessary to maintain our international space. So we need to be strong, bilaterally, we need to work with regional platforms, we need to be active in the international fora, including the United Nations, and we are. For example, we effectively coordinate and lead what is called the ‘Triple G’ (3G), which is a group of countries - like-minded - which make proposals to the G20. We chair and coordinate what is called the Forum of Small States which comprises more than a hundred countries in the United Nations. We do a number of these things, not all of them are costed under foreign aid development. We also bring in – by last count it must be in excess of 80,000 people to Singapore to train them – because we don’t believe in giving direct money, but we believe in training people in capacity-building in their countries. So they come here, they learn from us. And I don’t even like to put it in terms of ‘learn’, I put it in terms of ‘share’. They see what we have done right, they see what we have done not so well, that helps them, they go back. They range from countries - Botswana, Rwanda, obviously Southeast Asia (more than half of the participants come from Southeast Asia), other countries. Even China – they do not come under the SCP, they come under other programmes. We do not cost all of them under the development aid.
54. So we take part in international fora, where we see it’s in our vital interests, for example the Arctic Council. We make a very serious effort, spend resources as necessary, and become observers. A lot of people scratch their heads and say, “Why does Singapore want to be an observer in the Arctic Council?” We decided we wanted to, we fought quite hard, we were successful in getting in as an observer. And we will make a contribution there: in fact, our contributions were so well-recognised that Mr Sam Tan was asked to make a speech.
55. So perhaps Member can tell me how he thinks that we ought to be spending our money, in different ways. But so far we make direct contributions, for example when there are humanitarian needs – when there is a disaster - we also offer relief in kind, and we rather than working back from “we ought to spend S$2 billion dollars”, we work on the basis that these are the countries that may benefit from our developmental aid. Not everything has got to be based on purely a calculative basis, nor should it be. These are the countries that we can work with and share our experiences. Often, it also is relevant to our foreign policy aims. For example, last year, we had the Foreign Ministers of the Caribbean states visit Singapore to look at our experiences. And from the Pacific Islands as well. This year, it is likely that a number of Ministers from Africa will visit Singapore to look at what we are doing.
56. Earlier, in the Law Ministry debate, my Senior Minister of State pointed out that we’re doing things with Myanmar which would help them develop their legal capacity. That doesn’t come under the development budget either. So we go in a very targeted way. Another thing we do is we go into partnerships with third countries, or we bring in partners, and together we target to do some good in third countries. We have signed a partnership programme with the United States, for example. It’s called the Third-Country Training Programme. With US expertise, our local know-how, put together, goes into a specific country. We have such deals, such agreements, with a number of countries. So if you think that’s not enough, maybe you can tell us what more we can do. Thank you.
Remarks by Second Minister Grace Fu
I will begin by elaborating on Singapore’s key bilateral relationships beyond Southeast Asia.
China and US
China and the US are both important partners for Singapore and many of our neighbours, and have much to contribute to regional stability, growth and prosperity. Singapore maintains good bilateral relations with both countries and will continue to strengthen these ties to keep both powers engaged in the region.
For the past few decades, the US presence has underpinned regional stability, allowing countries in the region to grow and prosper. Singapore has supported the US’ constructive regional engagement. We enjoy strong political, economic, and security ties with the US. The US is Singapore’s largest foreign direct investor, and our fourth-largest trading partner. On the defence front, we facilitated the rotational deployment of the US’ Littoral Combat Ships in line with our support for the US’ continued engagement of the region. There has also been a steady exchange of high-level visits in the past year. PM met with President Barack Obama in April 2013 in Washington and we hosted visits to Singapore by Vice-President Joe Biden and other key members of the Obama Administration. As part of the US’ continued engagement of the region, the inaugural ASEAN-US Summit was held in October last year, which signalled both sides’ commitment to elevate the ASEAN-US partnership and broaden existing cooperation. We look forward to President Obama’ visit to the region in April 2014.
Moving on to our ties with China, we have always believed that a strong and prosperous China is in the interest of Singapore, the region and the world. Singapore has therefore consistently supported China’s development over the years, and we have witnessed bilateral cooperation expanding beyond traditional economic cooperation into new areas such as financial services, sustainable development and social management. We continue to have excellent institutional links, such as the Singapore-China Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. We enjoy good relations with the Chinese leadership and saw several high-level exchanges, including visits to China by PM Lee, ESM Goh and DPMs Teo Chee Hean and Tharman. Singapore also hosted visits by Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. At the broader regional level, China has been a strong and consistent supporter of ASEAN. We commemorated the 10th anniversary of the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership last year and look forward to the Chinese leadership’s continued interest in strengthening ASEAN-China ties.
Japan and Korea
Singapore and Japan have robust relations underpinned by strong economic ties and close cooperation on issues of common interest. PM made two visits to Japan in May and December last year to keep up ties with Japanese leaders. PM Shinzo Abe also visited Singapore last July, and delivered the 33rd Singapore Lecture on “Abenomics”. We have also maintained good relations with the Republic of Korea, which has expressed interest in stepping up ties with Singapore on several fronts, including economic cooperation. PM visited the ROK in December last year and will be making another visit this December to commemorate the 25th anniversary of ASEAN-ROK dialogue relations.
Economic, defence, and people-to-people links between Singapore and India continue to thrive. We had a good exchange of high-level visits last year, including those by ESM Goh Chok Tong, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Indian Finance Minister P Chidambaram and External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid. The maturity of our relations with India cushioned any negative impact arising from the Little India Riot. Indian perceptions towards Singapore, which are generally positive, have not been affected. Going forward, both sides will continue to work to strengthen relations, especially in the economic, defence, and air services sectors.
In terms of our relations with Europe, PM made official visits to France and Poland in October 2013, while President made State Visits to Hungary and the Slovak Republic in November 2013. President will visit Portugal and Switzerland this year to explore new areas of economic and research cooperation with both countries.
Last year I provided an update on the negotiations for the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA). I am pleased to note that the EUSFTA, as well as the EU-Singapore Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (ESPCA), have since been initialled in September and October 2013 respectively. The EU is our third largest trading partner (with trade amounting to S$96.5 billion in 2013) and largest source of Foreign Direct Investments (S$189.4 billion in 2012). The EU-Singapore FTA will yield benefits for Singapore companies. The potential tariff savings from the FTA amount to approximately S$500 million each year. We are working towards the approval and ratification of both agreements by the EU Council and European Parliament. This is our key priority for 2014.
Expanding Singapore’s Economic Space
Minister Shanmugam has spoken about our participation in the UN earlier on. Besides the UN, we had made good progress in pursuing our economic interests. Particularly, I am pleased to note that Singapore has been invited by Australia to the Brisbane G20 Summit in November 2014. This will be the fourth time Singapore is participating in the G20 Summit. We are also working with various parties to ensure substantive outcomes in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement negotiations. The TPP, together with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) FTA, which Singapore is also actively involved in negotiating, will promote greater regional economic integration and pave the way for an eventual Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific. In these ways and more, Singapore has continued to make progress in expanding our economic space.
SMS Masagos will now speak on our engagement of other emerging markets in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.
Remarks by SMS Masagos Zulkifli
Mr Chairman, Mr Alex Yam asked about the state of Singapore's engagement of the Middle East in view of political developments in the region, and Singapore’s engagement of emerging markets, of which I will touch on Africa and Latin America.
We have focused our efforts on the Gulf countries, many of which we have established institutional platforms with, such as the UAE, Qatar, as well as Oman, where recently we have established a Consulate-General in Muscat, Oman.
Last year, between our office holders, we have visited Saudi [Arabia], Abu Dhabi, Qatar, UAE, Oman and Bahrain. And recently, Minister visited Iran. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean also visited Abu Dhabi in January 2014. Singapore also welcomed Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Bin Khalifa Al-Thani in November last year and His Majesty King Abdullah [II] recently in February this year.
Our economic ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are strong. Last year, trade between Singapore and the GCC totalled about S$64 billion. And coming into force is the GCC-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, in September 2013, will further expand our economic links with the region.
At the regional level, Singapore has worked with ASEAN to build closer links with the GCC.
In addition to these political and economic engagements, we have shared our developmental experiences with the Middle East. For example, Singapore contributes to the Palestinian National Authority’s capacity building efforts under our Technical Assistance Package. These contributions were highlighted when I attended the second Conference on Cooperation among East Asian Countries for Palestinian Development in Jakarta, where I also met Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, and welcomed more Palestinian officials to visit Singapore under the enhanced package. We offered further help in cooperation, including water management and public administration.
Besides the Middle East, we have stepped up our engagement of other emerging markets, such as Turkey – where we opened an Embassy in 2012 – Africa and Latin America, to expand Singapore’s economic footprint.
In January 2014, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made an official visit to Singapore, where the commencement of negotiations on a comprehensive Singapore – Turkey Free Trade Agreement was announced. This is a significant development in bilateral relations.
Africa continues to feature on our radar as we look beyond traditional investment destinations. I visited South Africa and Nigeria in May 2013 and was impressed by the rapid economic growth and pace of development in the continent. We must not miss out on this.
We are also watching Latin America closely. Our trade with this fast going region reached about S$37 billion in 2013. Minister Shanmugam has visited Brazil and Peru, and in July 2013, we hosted Ministers from 10 Caribbean countries for the inaugural CARICOM High-Level Ministerial Exchange Visit.
Indeed, many Latin American countries are looking for opportunities to participate in Asia's robust growth. Notably, as of 2013, cumulative Foreign Direct Investments from the region into Singapore amounted to S$25 billion.
Our ability to seize opportunities and foster cooperation with these emerging markets will give Singapore additional avenues for growth. I will now hand over to SPS Sam Tan who will respond to questions on Singapore’s technical assistance, and MFA’s consular assistance to Singaporeans.
Remarks by SPS Sam Tan
Madam Chairman, before I begin, I will like to seek your mercy and approval to give me extra time, otherwise I will not be able to finish my speech., if we have enough time.
Madam Chair, I will now respond to questions on Singapore’s technical assistance programmes and consular assistance to Singaporeans. Mr Gerald Giam asked about the role of international development in our foreign policy, and whether we are considering expanding the scale of these programmes.
Singapore’s Technical Assistance
Singapore’s Technical Assistance Programme is part of Singapore’s efforts in international development to build a constituency of friends and supporters at the United Nations as well as important International Organisations.
Singapore currently extends technical assistance to other developing countries primarily through the Singapore Cooperation Programme, or SCP in short.
We do this because it is the right thing to do. Singapore had benefitted from foreign assistance when we first became independent. Now that we have reached a certain level of development, we wanted to give something back as a responsible member of the international community.
We understood from our own experience that technical assistance is equally effective, if not more, than just giving financial aid, in creating the right conditions for growth.
Under the SCP, we train government officials from other countries to equip them with skills and knowledge to make a real impact in changing their people’s lives for the better.
We share Singapore’s development experiences – our experiences, successes as well as mistakes we have made along the way – in the areas where we are strong in such as public administration, urban planning and economic development.
Helping other countries is also not just the right thing to do. It also helps to build a strong network of friends for Singapore who can help us defend our interests at the United Nations and other international organisations. So as a small state, building a wide constituency of friends is especially useful for Singapore.
The SCP helps our neighbours, and also benefits Singapore. A good part of the SCP is aimed at strengthening ASEAN. An ASEAN that is economically integrated, prosperous and neutral can better attract investment, create jobs, manage regional challenges, and be a platform through which to engage larger powers.
The SCP has been very very well received by Singapore’s friends and partners, and it complements other forms of assistance extended by other agencies or Civil Society and International Organisations such as the Singapore International Foundation.
We will need to continue investing in the SCP to broaden our network of friends and also to deepen friendships. But Singapore has limited resources and cannot compete with the larger donor countries in terms of the quantum of assistance that we give out. Some major donors like Japan and the US dispense more than US$10 billion in aid per year.
We don’t have that kind of deep pockets. But we can still do what is within our means – effectively targeting and meaningful. So we are focusing our efforts on maximizing the value of our contributions by: providing “smarter assistance” by concentrating our efforts in areas where we can make the greatest positive impact; customising our programmes to meet the development needs of our friends; developing new programmes to meet emerging development needs and challenges; leveraging more on our network of partnerships with aid agencies, International Organisations, and other developed countries to provide joint technical assistance to other countries.
Mr Chairman, I will now move on to consular assistance to Singaporeans.
With greater affluence and connectivity, Singaporeans are travelling much more than before for work, leisure and education. Singaporeans made 6.9 million overseas trips in 2013 last year, as compared to 3.6 million a decade ago. This excludes land trips to Malaysia which reached almost 20 million trips last year. Our consular workload has correspondingly grown in both volume and complexity, with more than 3000 consular cases handled last year. Concurrently, Singaporeans’ expectations of our consular services have also risen over time. MFA treats all requests for consular assistance seriously, and remains committed to providing efficient and responsive consular assistance to Singaporeans in distress abroad. While some cases have been challenging to handle, our officers have been able to assist to meet these challenges, and we are heartened and encouraged by Singaporeans expressing their appreciation for MFA’s assistance. For example, when the Australian police alerted our Canberra Mission that a young Singaporean child had passed away in Tasmania while on holiday there, our Mission helped advise the family on various aspects of the repatriation procedures. Our Canberra Mission also took the initiative to contact KK Hospital for the deceased’s medical records to help speed up the process. The family returned to Singapore safely and they subsequently wrote a letter to all those involved, including our Mission and the Tasmanian authorities, to express their gratitude for the assistance. In another case, a Singaporean NUS student was in Beijing on an internship programme when she received news that her father had suffered a heart attack in Singapore. Unfortunately, her passport had been submitted to the local Chinese authorities for the processing of visa and this unfortunately has also coincided with a three-day national holiday period for Mid-Autumn festival in China. Upon receiving the news, our Mission in Beijing quickly contacted the Beijing authorities and got the relevant officers to return to the office so that the student could retrieve her passport and rush back to Singapore that very night. The President of NUS wrote a letter to thank our Beijing Mission for the expeditious assistance extended to this student.
Mr Alex Yam asked whether MFA has sufficient resources to meet increasing demands for consular support. I would like to thank Mr Yam for his concern. MFA is constantly improving our work processes to better meet public needs for consular services. In addition to our 49 Overseas Missions, we maintain a network of 30 Honorary Consuls-General in countries where we do not have a diplomatic presence. These Honorary Consuls-General are prominent members of their countries, and they help Singapore by providing consular coverage in locations where we do not have resident missions. Where we do not even have representations of the HCG, there is an agreement among ASEAN countries to help each other’s nationals when there is an emergency. We can also request assistance from friendly countries like the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand. We also place an emphasis on emergency preparedness and regularly review our contingency plans to deal with potential flashpoints where Singaporeans could be affected. MFA also participated in inter-Ministry and inter-agency emergency preparedness exercises as a coordinated approach among multiple government agencies is often required when handling crises. If there is a need, we will deploy Consular Response Teams (CRTs) to help Singaporeans in crisis areas following natural and man-made disasters. For instance, a CRT was deployed to Egypt during the period of unrest in August 2013 to assist affected Singaporeans, especially our students studying in Cairo.
In recent years, MFA has been using technology to enhance our ability to monitor and respond to crises and step up our ability to communicate with Singaporeans. We started a dedicated Consular Twitter account in 2011 and launched the MFA@SG mobile application in 2012. These technical tools help to extend our reach and improve our dissemination of information in a timely and efficient manner. As a matter of fact, the MFA@SG app now ranks among the top three government mobile applications in terms of subscribed users. We also continue to encourage Singaporeans travelling overseas to make use of our “eRegister” system so that we can contact them in the event of an emergency. Singaporeans can also subscribe to receive MFA’s travel notices electronically, which provide useful consular information for their overseas trips.
While our officers will continue to do their best to be creative, flexible and empathetic in assisting Singaporeans, there are also limitations to what we can do. We have to act in accordance with international conventions, and cannot ignore local laws and regulations or interfere with the judicial processes of other countries. It is inevitable that Singaporeans may have to put up with some inconveniences and frustrations when travelling abroad. Nevertheless, MFA cannot compel a foreign country, government agency or commercial entity to satisfy the demands of Singaporeans. It is therefore important that Singaporeans understand what our consular officers can or cannot do.
While MFA strives to assist, Singaporeans also have to take some responsibility for their own safety when they travel. For instance, proper pre-trip preparations and taking sensible precautions while abroad can help to minimise problems during their travels.
Ms Irene Ng mentioned the need to have well trained and dedicated Foreign Service Officers. I fully agree with her. For a small country with no natural resources like Singapore, we really have to maximise our human resources, which is our only asset. People are indeed key to diplomacy and there can be no substitute for people. We are therefore also intensifying our efforts to train and professionalise our consular officers in MFA headquarters and at our Overseas Missions.
Mr Chairman, foreign policy starts with the people and ends with the people. We need good people to craft out sound foreign policy and we also need good people to implement them on the ground. My Ministry will continue to pay close attention to HR development to ensure that we will continue to have a good team to secure and defend the regional and international interests of Singapore through sound diplomacy.
Dr Lim Wee Kiak: Mr Chairman, I would like to ask for the Minister for clarification regarding the ASEAN Economic Committee which he mentioned. With the current turmoil, the political turmoil that has been going on with our regional countries in ASEAN, will the remaining 20% of that work come true? And what can Singaporeans expect when this ASEAN Economic Committee comes to realisation? Which means, what can the man on the street expect to benefit from it?
Minister: Thank you, Sir. The remaining 20% of the issues to be dealt with, the tariffs or coming down of barriers, are obviously the most difficult ones. There have been intense negotiations, obviously some progress. There is good will on all sides, but given the differences in economic development, obviously there are some concerns amongst some of the countries on completely opening up. And we are trying. Everybody recognises that come 2015, we need to make progress. We have already agreed on a post-2015 vision as well. We will have to do what we can, this year and next. There is good will. And we will continue trying after that.
Now, what does that mean for the man in the street? When you bring down the tariff barriers, now what does this represent? ASEAN has over 600 million people. Its economy, the weight of its economy, is something in excess of 2.2 trillion dollars. That’s bigger than economy of India. So if you look at the map of Asia, what are the big economic blocks? India, China, Japan. Everybody recognises that. Not a lot of people realise that ASEAN is a huge economy within itself. Now, imagine if that its economy, growing at anything between 4-5 %, a bit more, a bit less, can bring down the barriers and create a large economic community , the sum of the parts is much greater than what they would achieve individually. Freer flow of goods, services. Of course, professional services, there will always be more difficulties. But if we can get at least the goods, basic goods, basic services moving without too many barriers that will be a tremendous achievement. It will add to the economic growth, and it will yield substantial benefit for people of ASEAN.
Irene Ng: The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is yet another reminder of vulnerabilities of small states, and it’s a reminder to Singapore, especially, how harsh the world is, that size, strength and military power do matter in international relations. This is precisely the point of me making my defence cut. But the younger generation has grown up knowing only peace, and perhaps this has lulled people like the Nominated MP Laurence Lian into a false sense of security, and believing that the narrative of vulnerability is only rhetoric and not reality. Can I ask the Minister how can MFA ensure that Singaporeans will support Singapore’s foreign policy and its fundamental tenets, and to be united when any country, no matter how large, tries to intimidate or put pressure on Singapore?
Minister: I think most Singaporeans understand the fact that we are small and the limitations it brings, including the younger generation. The extent of understanding may vary, and I think every country faces this issue, that what happens in the foreign policy space is not often understood in the domestic scene. Smaller countries have less of a problem because people can see for themselves every now and then what happens to them, you know, when international events and regional events impact very directly. We just have to continue trying. I can give no better answer.
Alex Yam: I have two questions for Senior Parliamentary Secretary. Sir, you mentioned that a large part of the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP) has been focussed on ASEAN. Could you share with us how much specifically and whether there are some key examples of success?
Secondly on consular services, I read recently that the Australian MFA in a recent review is considering charging Australians for the use of consular assistance. This is something that with the growing number of consular requests that MFA might also be considering.
SPS: Madam Speaker, I had used quite a bit of extra time just now so I will just give a very short answer. On the second question on whether MFA would impose fees for consular services, the short answer is no we have no plan to do so. With regard to your first question about the SCP programme for ASEAN, today we have trained about 55,000 officials from ASEAN, and this constitutes 57% of our total SCP programme trainees. So in that sense it is close to almost 60% of SCP programmes. Thank you.
Gerald Giam: I have some clarifications for the Minister. I said in my cut quite clearly that I did not expect Singapore to contribute 0.7 percent and certainly not $2 billion. So I am aware that every dollar we spend on international development would be possibly one less dollar we spend on domestic needs. And I also thank SPS Sam Tan for explaining Singapore’s contributions to the SCP. My key question in my cut was: does the government see international development as a cost-effective way of furthering our foreign policy goals in terms of building good will and support from other countries for Singapore? For example, after the Asian Tsunami, Singapore engaged in several projects in Aceh province as well as in Sri Lanka to build up some of the capacity, and not just in terms of technical assistance and training but actually going to that country and engaging in development projects. So are there plans for Singapore to similarly explore such things such that we can further our foreign policy goals a bit better?
Minister: Yes, we see it as part of our foreign policy aims. Thank you.
MP Ellen Lee: Minister, you mentioned about Ukraine. I am just interested in hearing how Minister interprets the situation. The US and Europe are condemning Russia for what it did in Crimea, but the Chinese President has actually been in contact with the Russian President and both have reaffirmed their relationship. Given what China is doing currently, in the East China Sea and South China Sea, can that be taken as a further manifestation of Chinese intention that instead of condemning Russia for what she is doing in Crimea, China is actually supporting what Russia is doing. Thank you.
Minister: I think it is entirely understandable, that not just China, but many countries, will affirm their good relations with Russia, including us, but that does not prevent us from taking a specific view on any particular action and we have made our own position clear. China has not quite said what it thinks about Russia’s actions. But I don’t think that you should draw a conclusion from the fact that the Chinese President spoke to the Russian President that China is either approving or condemning the specific actions in Crimea but what it tells you is that every country understands what its interests are. Interests are permanent, friends are transient, and each country will behave according to its size and weight and what it considers to be its interests. What China is doing is obviously calculated in China’s interests.